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Let's Get Ready to Humble!

Unlike the weeks since I started this blog, as this week progressed, no topic came spontaneously to me. When I sat down to meditate earlier today, I asked for an idea to come. Whom did I ask? I don’t know—The universe? My spiritual guides? My inner self? My consciousness? Who knows? I just asked, like setting an intention, and then I let the request go, meaning I stopped thinking about it, I came into my breath, and I practiced coming back to the breath when I realized my mind had pulled my attention away from it—my normal meditation practice. Throughout the sitting I felt disturbed. It wasn’t easy to stay in my breath, my chest and belly felt uncomfortable, and there was a sour tone to the thoughts that came. At this point, I’m able to be in all that with a good deal of detachment, so while all that was happening, I could observe it without getting too caught up in it, or judging it, or fretting about it, or trying to figure out what it was about or why it was happening—it just was what it was at that time, just like at other times there’s stillness or happy, excited thoughts.

After a while of working with that, I realized that the disturbance came from wanting my meditation to be different than it was, and in particular, I wanted a clear idea to come to me for this blog, as I had asked for. I did not have any actual thoughts about that at all—nothing like, “oh, why aren’t I getting an answer to my question?” or “what am I going to do if no topic comes?” or “ugh, this isn’t working”—just the usual, random thoughts about this and that—but I could tell that the thoughts were trying to distract me from the frustration of not getting what I wanted. And I recognized the physical discomfort as the sensations of wanting to be anywhere else but right there where I was. When I can be in those sensations without my mind constructing a story about what they are or what they mean—just be in the bare sensations—they tend to intensify for a while and then shift, sometimes even dissipating entirely. This time, the more I let myself feel them without trying to change them or get away from them, the more clearly I saw that I was sitting there unconsciously insisting that I knew how this meditation should be, that I knew what a “good” meditation would look like and this wasn’t it. Once I saw that, I tried to let it go. I tried to just sit there without wanting anything to be different than it was, but to my dismay, I kept discovering that even as I was trying hard to do that, I was actually still holding on to an unstated, largely unconscious goal: “if I accept everything exactly as it is, then I will get the answer I want.” That made me angry. I mean, how am I supposed to literally want nothing? And what’s so wrong with wanting guidance about what to write in a blog about self-realization?

I stewed in those feelings of frustration, powerlessness, confusion, and even rage for a short time and then remembered that the work in meditation is to come back to the breath when I realize my mind has pulled me away from it. So I did that, and within 2 or 3 breaths, I realized that the topic for today’s blog is humility. When I insist—whether forcefully, or gently, or even unconsciously—that things need to be the way I want them to be in order for me to feel okay, I am implicitly saying that I should get to control the universe, or at least the part of the universe that’s relevant to whatever I’m after. I’m saying that I know better how things should be than whatever forces there are that actually keep the universe moving. That’s kind of preposterous. After all, I’m just one human being. And we all know that in important ways we have no real control—like when we or others will die or get sick, how the weather will impact an event we care about, whether traffic or other delays will interfere with travel, what mood we’ll find our mate or our kids or our boss in when we see them, etc. In these kinds of areas, we may fuss when things don’t go our way, but we recognize that we don’t have the power to dictate how things will turn out. But in much smaller ways, it’s easier to live under the illusion that we have control and power. That’s partly because we have a lot of experience intending for something to happen, doing what we need to do to make it happen, and then actually seeing the result we want come to pass. It’s great when that’s how it works. But it also can condition us to expect it to work like that most of the time. That’s not realistic, and holding on to that expectation usually leads to suffering.

In reality, we have no control over anything. When things work out the way we intend them to, that’s because some universal force made that happen—our karma, some Divine intelligence, the randomness of the universe, luck, or whatever other way of understanding it resonates with you. But it’s not because we made it happen, and we can know that because of how often we engage in the very same process—intending something and working toward it—but find that it doesn’t turn out the way we wanted.

This doesn’t mean we have no free will, or that we shouldn’t bother wanting or working toward anything. To the contrary, as human beings, we want, and there is no point in trying to deny that. So of course, if we want something, we can work to attain it, and if we do attain it, we can be pleased. But what happens when we can’t attain it? If it’s not an important thing, we usually just let it go. But when it is important, and no matter how we try, we can’t get what we want, we usually get very disturbed and either blame others or blame ourselves. Either way, we suffer. Either way, we deny the reality that while we may act to achieve a desired end, and even need to act in order to have any chance of achieving it, whether that end is ultimately achieved or not is not up to us. That’s not a reality most of us accept easily. I had trouble accepting it in meditation today.

But when I surrendered, when I realized that I had tried everything I could and despite my efforts I still couldn’t get what I wanted so I gave up and just came back into the bare sensations of my abdomen rising and falling with my breath, the answer I had been seeking appeared. I got what I wanted by letting go of wanting it. It’s paradoxical. It’s not completely satisfying. It’s humbling. It means that ultimately, I’m not the doer. I do, but I’m not the one who causes things to be done. I accept my place in the universe. I am far from powerless, but I have nowhere near the power I think I have or want to have. And yet, surrendering to that reality yielded precisely the result I wanted, so paradoxically, humility is power.

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines humble as “not proud; not thinking of oneself as better than others.” Humble and humility come from the Latin words humus and humilis, which mean “earth” and “on the ground,” respectively. So being humble means recognizing that we are of the earth—as in dirt or soil, not the planet. And the word human also comes from the Latin humus, so being human and being humble are related. This makes sense to me, because thinking that we are more than we are, or acting like we are bigger than we are, is not real. It may enable us to get something we want, but it’s not sustainable, it’s not kind or compassionate to ourselves or others, it’s not honest, and it ultimately leads to suffering. Again, this doesn’t mean we shouldn’t want things and we shouldn’t act to try to get what we want; of course we will do that, and there’s certainly nothing wrong with that. This is about carrying the illusion that we are greater than we are so that when we act and things don’t work out the way we wanted, we feel put out, betrayed, angry, resentful, or like a failure—ultimately that we had a right or were entitled to get the result we wanted, especially if it was an honorable result that we worked hard for, and our right got violated in some way by someone or something. That is what I felt today in meditation when I could not get the answer I had asked for.

Jesus famously taught that “the meek shall inherit the earth” (Matthew 5:5). This appears to be a quote from the earlier Hebrew Bible in Psalm 37, verse 11, which reads almost identically. The Hebrew word translated here as “meek” actually means “humble,” and is one of the words used to describe Moses (Numbers 12:3), who was certainly not meek. Also, the English Burial Service contains the well-known phrase, “earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust,” which is derived from Genesis 3:19: “…for out of the ground were you taken: for dust you are, and unto dust shall you return.” So the Judeo-Christian tradition recognizes both the inherent humility of humans, as well as the power of humility.

This is not an easy concept for many people to accept or even believe. It has not been easy for me. Actually, it has been very easy for me in the abstract, in a theoretical or spiritual sense. Since I was a young child I recognized the fragility of arrogance, of conceit, of blind ambition, and of the bullies who made my school life hell. But my introspective journey, primarily through therapy, yoga, meditation, and other practices, has revealed that at a much subtler level I carry expectations and feelings of entitlement that I should be able to get what I want. And my experience in meditation this morning confirms that those expectations hurt. As much practice as I have done, as many times and as many ways as I have looked hard at my own sense of entitlement and worked to let it go, it showed up when I actually thought I was humbling myself by asking for guidance. That’s how deeply ingrained and insidious the illusion of entitlement is. The beauty of my experience this morning, however, is that it also confirms that when we truly let ourselves be humble, we align ourselves with our true nature, and we want for nothing.

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